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"Shared Devotion, Shared Food: Equality and the Bhakti-Caste Question in Western India." Image provided by Jon Keune.
The Brink

Bhakti, Hindu Theology and Equality: An Interview with Jon Keune

Early modern Indian saint-poets challenged the hierarchical caste-based Hindu social order by democratizing the sacerdotal ritual tradition. Food commensality was an effective means used for undertaking such democratizing processes.

This interview first appeared in Political Theology volume 23, issue 5, available here.

Pre-modern Hindu religious and social discourse followed for well over two millennia a set of sophisticated and complex injunctions pertaining to liberation (mukti) from the cycle of human births. Alongside more contemplative modes of seeking liberation, Hindus were expected to follow the diktats laid out in various theologico-political (dharmashastra) texts pertaining to social and religious duties. Any transgressions in performing one’s duties risked provoking the ire of the religious orthodoxy and forced the transgressor to perform serious ablutions to regain their ‘purity’. The hierarchical, caste-based Hindu social order that developed alongside this sacerdotal ritual tradition, in which ethics were framed variously according to social location, made it extremely difficult to imagine and strive towards achieving social equality.

The heterodox tradition of saint-poetry or bhakti has long been seen as a provocative challenge to and in some cases a direct assault on the dharmashastra-based social order. Starting around the seventh century CE in Tamil country, saint-poets began emerging in various parts of the Indian sub-continent. Through their poetry, composed and performed purposefully in vernacular languages, saint-poets strove to make Hindu religious discourse confined to Sanskrit language accessible to the masses. A popular if uncritical view now is that bhakti traditions rescued Hindu divinity from metaphysical and ritualistic domains that were restricted only to high-caste men. In this devotional mode, God was depicted as eagerly interacting with pious peasants, gardeners, potters, and leather-workers, having the character of a dear friend who is accessible and desirable. What God asked for in return was heartfelt and sincere devotion – bhakti.      

Jon Keune’s book Shared Devotion, Shared Food: Equality and the Bhakti-Caste Question in Western India (Oxford University Press, 2021) is a study of one such tradition, in western India, in which caste hierarchy is frequently and explicitly questioned. Mutual recognition and respect, hallmarks of modern social imaginaries, are seen at work in this pre-modern bhakti saint tradition. Yet critics like B. R. Ambedkar insisted that bhakti traditions did not promote social equality. With this critical perspective in focus, the book develops key insights about the non-Western theorization of the notion of ‘equality’ and traces its manifestation in the vernacular Marathi bhakti tradition. An important highlight of the book is its account of the publication history of bhakti poetry and hagiographies scattered across the 19th and early 20th centuries, allowing us to see the changing nature of public theology—both ‘sectarian’ and secular. The latter entails popular consumption through variegated readings of theological texts and devotional scriptures across caste and gender divide in the mode of cultural identity and literary heritage rather than religious involvement.

The second half of the book focuses on ‘critical commensality’: it shows how food is a prime signifier for caste transgressions during the early modern period. Keune works with five instances of ‘food-sharing’, as depicted in the hagiographies of 16th century saint-poet Eknāth, which were passed on in collective Indian memory and transferred through their variegated representations in popular media such as theatre, literature, and films. After tracing the reception histories of these stories and explaining how they reveal shifting intellectual paradigms of equality, Keune argues that this slippage in meaning is at the core of modern confusion about the bhakti traditions’ relationship to caste and equality.

The book charts the journey of a medieval saint-poet’s endeavors at establishing the elementary aspects of an inclusive and perhaps proto-egalitarian social order through non-political quotidian practices. The book reimagines the notion of equality and its relation to power through the ethics of devotionalism. The book helps in expanding the contours of political theology which has, only recently, turned a curious ear towards the non-Western traditions and would prove particularly helpful for scholars and students interested in understanding social hierarchies, modern popular culture, and religious literary practices.

Alok Oak: Hindu discourse often prioritizes liberation from reincarnation as the goal of human life. Therefore, modern notions of liberty may have been an obvious modern lens to look at pre-modern Hindu life-worlds. What made you choose equality as a conceptual tool and framework for your study?

Jon Keune: My analysis grew out of preexisting Marathi debates about bhakti, caste, and untouchability. By the turn of the 20th century, the word “equality” became increasingly central because the issue was framed in terms of caste hierarchy, with its relative privileges and deprivations, rather than liberation from bondage. When B.R. Ambedkar argued that bhakti saints promoted only spiritual and not social equality, he was concerned especially with Dalits’ relative political and social standing rather than liberation or liberty. Earlier in the 19th century, Jotibā Phule did in fact frame caste in terms of slavery and liberation, but these terms somehow did not become standard in subsequent debates about caste, despite Phule’s extensive influence. As the critique of caste in the Marathi materials I studied posed equality as the opposite of caste structure, perhaps these authors somehow found the ideas of liberty and liberation less incisive for their purposes.

Alok Oak: What could it look like to read saint-poetry literature and the supposed devotional acts of the saint-poets preserved in hagiographies through non-European historical-categorical lenses?

Jon Keune: It is impossible to fully reconstruct how a hagiographer like Mahīpati in the mid-18th century viewed the world, especially because our worldviews now take for granted such a different set of concepts, intellectual values, aesthetic sensitivities, and background knowledge. Ethnographic observation of contemporary groups who use hagiographical stories is quite valuable, but modern devotees probably do not experience the stories exactly as Mahīpati did. For example, on a trip to Mahīpati’s rural hometown in 2010, I picked up a CD of a Marathi kīrtan performance. I was surprised to hear the kīrtan performer invoke Max Müller’s name as an authority, as he paid homage to Mahīpati and incorporated compositions by various Marathi saints.

I think the best way forward is to read hagiographical texts closely, take note of the narrative patterns that appear, and pause at features that defy our expectations now. Confusing features perhaps may be meaningless or the result of transmission difficulties, but I think it is more likely that they indicate an alternative logic that shaped the worldviews of the author, performers, and audiences. This logic might become clearer by reading multiple renditions of stories (in their original languages) and comparing them with other texts in the same genre from a similar period as well as tracking how the stories changed as they were retold over time. Doing this led me to the insight that the hagiographers were being strategically ambiguous about bhakti’s relation to caste in the stories that I focused on. What at first appeared to be an oddity or flaw in the story was in fact a feature of the narrative that I failed to notice at first, since my modern sensibilities as a reader were so different.

Recognizing that stories about the saint-poets are theological and social arguments as well as memories about the past (and entertainment, poetry, and other things) is vital for reading hagiographies through non-European lenses. This mode of remembering the past does not align neatly with secular history, but it represents values and concerns that people thought were important. This is clear from the fact that when hagiographers repeat stories, they often nuance the retellings to convey different messages about a saint-poet’s significance.

Alok Oak: Amongst the world’s major religious traditions, liberation theology (emerging among some Latin American Catholics) is a radical approach to address social marginalization and social injustice within Christian communities. One could also draw parallels with Buddhist religious movements in Asia that similarly drew on Marx to strive towards social emancipation. Is the stance taken by the early modern Indian bhakti saint-poets similar to the approaches of these modern popular religious movements?

Jon Keune: I hesitate to say “yes.” Marx and Engels distinguished between incremental change and revolution to reconstruct the world. It is possible that some saint-poets may have been revolutionary in their own time, but then later traditions remembered them in softer, more integrative terms, until more radical interpretations arose (or returned) in the late 19th century. I would love to discover strong evidence of past revolutionary behavior, but hagiographical stories (composed well after the individual’s death) tend to serve that more conservative, but integrative, historiographical purpose.

One aspect may offer an intriguing comparison. Liberation theology’s emphasis on God’s “preferential option for the poor” could be perceived as resembling some bhakti literature’s keen interest in God’s grace toward the most marginalized people. Whereas modern liberation theology (explicitly inheriting Marxian elements) focused on the plight of impoverished Catholic people in Central and South America and suggested possible alleviations, bhakti hagiographical references to God’s special interest in Dalits, at least as those references have come down to us, emphasize God’s radical inclusivity rather than calling for change in the world.

Alok Oak: How do Indian vernacular terms such as samatā, samabuddhi and samadṛṣṭī, compare with the English term ‘equality’? Can modernity be used as a point of temporal and conceptual departure in arriving at their differential meanings? What bearing do these vernacular, premodern terms have in arriving at a global intellectual history of ‘equality’?

Jon Keune: As Marathi authors used these three terms before the mid-19th century, they referred to an impartial way of seeing and interacting with the world, based on a person’s own spiritual development. Saints see past worldly distinctions because they know the deeper truth about reality. When most people now refer to ‘social equality,’ they assume an external reference point like a nation-state’s constitution or legal regime, whose validity does not depend on individuals’ abilities to perceive it. Have people within a bhakti or philosophically nondualist orbit used that individual-based perception of sameness or impartial viewing as reason for changing their own behavior—and the behavior of their less spiritually-advanced neighbors—to treat socially marginalized people differently? Not knowing for certain, I think that at least some people connected the dots in this way, even if it was not widespread.

I don’t see any reason why nondualist ethical terms cannot be coordinated with the modern idea of social equality. Marathi interpreters in the 19th and 20th centuries occasionally did it. These Indic nondualist terms may also illuminate assumptions within a western idea of social equality. I view this as a question of resolve and self-aware conceptual translation rather than incommensurable worldviews. Ambedkar himself in Riddles in Hinduism suggested that nondualist ethics (which he called “Brahmaism” rooted in the ultimate reality of Brahman, as opposed to Brahmanism) could be a foundation of fraternity and democracy.

Alok Oak: You map the publication history of Marathi saint-poetry during the 19th and early 20th centuries by distinguishing between the brahmin and non-brahmin castes of the publishers and commentators. What is the crucial difference between their approach and outlook towards saint-poetry based on the caste-affiliations of these publishers and commentators?

Jon Keune: It is striking that the first compilations of saints’ short songs (their Gāthās) were edited by non-brahmins who often had established their own presses. I do not yet clearly understand how this fits the broader history of print in western India: who was able to acquire the technology and technical training, who the British Raj allowed to publish, and how that changed over time. But it is important to distinguish among spheres of printed material, too. The brahmin editors of Navnīt editions and authors of literary histories had more “secular” or at least nonsectarian audiences in mind, whereas the early Gāthā publishers often stated explicitly that their products should be used by devotees. Also needing more research is the impact of brahmin men—Nānāmahārāj Sākhre, Sonopant Dāṇḍekar, and Viṣṇubāvā Jog—who came from Pune, became Vārkarī leaders in Alandi, and helped facilitate the printing of bhakti literature. In my view, many popular impressions about the Vārkarī tradition were modulated through them and skew our perception of more historically and geographically distant aspects of the tradition.

Alok Oak: Eknāth, as a historical and literary figure, portrays tolerant Brahminism (i.e., tolerance towards so-called lower castes and Muslims). What makes him, entrenched in Hindu theological tradition, distinctive in pre-modern South Asian religiosity?

Jon Keune: I wouldn’t say that Eknāth represents “Brahminism” per se but a way of being a brahmin, whether in line with Christian Novetzke’s “brahmin double” theory or something more.[1] Eknāth is extraordinary in early-modern South Asia because of the interest he shows toward Dalits, especially Mahārs, and other people at the social margins. The linguistic variation and details we find in his allegorical drama-poems (bhārūḍs) indicates that he or his remembered persona was closely tied to careful observation of and perhaps social interaction with groups of people that early-modern authors typically ignored. Now that the book is out, this intrigues me especially about Eknāth: what to make of these uncommon ethnographic interests and observational abilities in early-modern South Asia?

Alok Oak: Dr. B. R. Ambedkar famously recommended exogamous marriage as the best way to end caste-based discrimination. What made you prioritize the practice of food commensality as the theoretical and critical space to challenge social inequalities? Is the (non)sharing of food peculiar to South Asian traditions?  

Jon Keune: Food and transgressive commensality were within reach of the bhakti proponents who I focused on in the book, as is clear by the fact that they appear so frequently in Marathi poetry and hagiography. I have not encountered within Vārkarī literature references to inter-marriage with Dalits. Even in modern Marathi productions about Eknāth, such inter-marriage appeared only once, in the 1967 play Bhāva Toci Dev. My book analyzes the history of the bhakti discourse, which prominently displays transgressive commensality but not inter-caste marriage. Dr. Ambedkar’s recommendation may well be the most practical way to transcend caste hierarchy, and this is why we do not see it suggested in the bhakti materials–it was too radically anti-caste for a tradition of diverse constituents to promote.

As I discuss in Chapter Four, the sharing and non-sharing of food is universal, although cultures understand and regulate it in different ways. I believe my approach to understanding conceptual history and social practice through food and commensality—what I call “critical commensality”—could be applied meaningfully to other cultures, religions, and time periods, so as to understand them and their social struggles on their own terms.

[1] Novetzke, Christian Lee. “The Brahmin Double: The Brahminical Construction of Anti-Brahminism and Anti-Caste Sentiment in Religious Cultures of Precolonial Maharashtra.” South Asian History and Culture 2, no. 2 (2011): 232-52.

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